Art

Titian, the Italian master celebrated as the father of Spain’s Prado, finds his way to Melbourne. By Patrick Hartigan.

Titian and Tintoretto bring Venetian Renaissance to the NGV

The Abduction of Helen (c.1578-79) by Tintoretto.
Credit: COURTESY NGV

The more of painting history one experiences, the clearer its fluid and by no means straightforward progression becomes. The scope of Renaissance painting alone is testament to the way in which this form of art moves: a curtain opening one moment to reveal another world we are encouraged to give ourselves over to, then closing to make us absolutely aware of its materiality and surface. 

The Prado in Madrid is a most intoxicating painting repository. Recently, roaming its halls and rooms, I was overwhelmed by the number of paintings that demanded prolonged attention. Over the course of five or six days I began to feel a part of the museum furniture, a beggar in its station of worldly departures and arrivals.

Tiziano Vecellio, known as Titian, has been called the father of the Prado and while taking in his influence on the Velázquez paintings alone – not to mention the many Titian works amassed by the Habsburgs – it is easy to understand why. Five works by this painting behemoth can be experienced, until August 31, at the Italian Masterpieces from Spain’s Royal Court, Museo del Prado exhibition at the National Gallery of Victoria. 

Four of the five are from the 1550s or later, the time when Titian began to paint with a much freer, more charged brushstroke. The works before these were slicker and shinier surfaces painted on wood panel, showing the influence of his teacher Bellini. But it was only their tremendous skill that hinted at the dynamism and abandon that was to follow and resonate with so much of what transpired in painting history. Indeed, to squint at the one late work in this show, Religion Succoured by Spain (1572-75), is to see shades of Renoir nearly 300 years before he was born. 

For an idea of what was being challenged here, it’s instructive while looking at this late work to glance back at the Correggio in the neighbouring room and consider the differences of approach between two paintings that both show figures in landscapes. In Correggio’s arrestingly poised Noli Me Tangere (c.1525) the figures nevertheless seem to sit on the painting, before their landscape backdrop, almost as if it might be possible to peel them off again. In the Titian work there is no such separation – everything from the sky to the flesh is treated with equal intensity. To return to the curtain analogy: if the Correggio work wants us to look through the window, in Titian’s we are forced to appreciate the fury of the wind in its curtain. 

Turning on one’s heel puts one face to face with The Abduction of Helen (c.1578-79) by that other Venetian renegade, Tintoretto. This painting takes us a step further from the intensely disciplined and mark-concealing rendering of earlier Renaissance painting, planting us in a composition that deftly ties its picture down – tames its mark-making frenzy – with the use of ship masts. Unlike the Correggio and Raphael paintings next door, where we can now learn about their evolution through X-ray technology, the information in Tintoretto’s work is made transparent, giving us, in a sense, both finished painting and X-ray: figures in relief in foreground, a flurry of less important figures in the background and a latterly added knot-tying device in the form of the masts.

Venetian painters were famous for their exuberant use of colour – at least in part due to trade routes and the availability of pigments arriving from the Orient – while their Florentine counterparts prided themselves on the rigour of their drawing practice. But while Venetian painters were criticised for their lack of drawing discipline, by the likes of Vasari and Michelangelo, one need only stand in this room of later Venetian works to understand that painting had simply unharnessed itself from the more slavish aspects of that practice. If “hastiness” was then the criticism made of this painting, it is now what we celebrate.

The history of painting seems to have a tidal relationship with what we want and expect from it. One of the continuums it has moved back and forth along, and which today seems particularly significant, is between the painting’s status as an object on the one hand, and as a picture on the other. In relation to this, it has tended to push us back at times, impressing with its gleaming reality halt, while at other times drawing us into its material rawness. Like the much later Abstract Expressionists and Conceptualists, Titian and Tintoretto were declaring the machinations of their hankerings, and by so doing granting us a foothold in a world at once fixed to, but independent of, its subjects. 

On the wall beside Tintoretto’s painting, we can see in Salome with the Head of John the Baptist (c.1550) – painted a couple of decades before Religion – the curtain-twitching impulses of Titian as his priorities began to shift. This took place primarily through a loosening of brush marks, softening of edges and prioritising of detail – events that now sound like mere lines from a textbook. But with all three of the 1550s works in this room Titian was beginning his charge into the euphoria of his late mythological paintings. 

Looking at Salome, the viewer is faced with the woman who has just danced for the king in order to have the head of a saint cut off. Unlike an earlier depiction of the same subject by Titian, housed in the Doria Pamphilj gallery in Rome, we encounter Salome alone with her trophy head – presumably en route to the debauched mother who requested this prize. In a libidinous haze she turns towards us, contrapposto, showing confused joy and defiance. 

Like most of what Titian painted at this time – namely the portraits that revolutionised the court painting genre and a swag of reclining Venuses – there’s unsettling gravity in this picture and something about the equation it presents, between form and flesh, seduction and apprehension, sturdiness and intoxication, that seems so very fitting to both Titian’s trajectory and the pursuit of painting more generally.

The exhibition is enriched by the inclusion of many drawings that fill out the ambit in which line becomes picture: a few marks by Michelangelo describing a shoulder, a few marks more by Andrea del Sarto studying a shawl, sitting auspiciously among paintings that incorporate their knowledge to vastly different effect. The late Renaissance is a spectacularly big moment in Western art and having access to its rip-current, especially at this end of the globe, is an experience not to be missed.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jul 12, 2014 as "Venetian binds". Subscribe here.

Patrick Hartigan
is a Sydney-based artist.